Tea Party Tempest

Another word on the IRS “scandal” from me over at the Tribune’s blog aggregation site.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

29 thoughts on “Tea Party Tempest”

  1. According to this article: http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/05/16/odonnell-reminds-politicians-of-the-real-irs-scandal/ the problem is not the law. The law says 501(c)(4) organizations must be “civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” Notice the word “exclusively” there.

    However, since 1959 the IRS has interpreted “exclusively” to be “primarily.” The IRS does not have to do that. With no change in the law, the IRS could interpret “exclusively” as “exclusively”, and deny 501(c)(4) status to all organizations that lobby. Do we really need to offer tax subsidies (in the form of tax-exempt status) to political groups>?

  2. “With no change in the law, the IRS could interpret “exclusively” as “exclusively”, and deny 501(c)(4) status to all organizations that lobby.”

    No, not really. All promotion of social welfare means, is that they have to be promoting the welfare of everybody, as they see that welfare, rather than just the welfare of members. Lobbying is perfectly consistent with that requirement, so long as the measures they’re lobbying for or against have general effect, rather than being focused on their membership.

    1. so …
      there is no definition immune from sophistry.

      good to know.

      I don’t want to ever, ever see you mention phrase “depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”

  3. K. Kleiman,

    Those scare quotes are ridiculous. Using the IRS as a political hit-team may seem like business-as-usual in Chicago but other Americans take viewpoint discrimination on the part of the government as a serious offense. “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” remember?

    If the current head of the IRS and President Obama himself can acknowledge that what has gone on is deeply troubling and un-American, why can’t liberal commentators? The scorched-earth tactics are both vicious and frightening but worst of all is that they have become de rigeur.

    I doubt that the left will ever do it as well or aggressively as FDR did but I don’t expect them to do anything but holler (and rightfully so!) when such abuse is next carried out by a right-wing administration.

    The IRS and the income tax must be abolished. The 16th Amendment must be repealed. The privacy and freedom of all Americans must be restored. Sooner is better than later.

      1. If the current head of the IRS and President Obama himself can acknowledge that what has gone on is deeply troubling and un-American, why can’t liberal commentators?

        I suspect Mr. Obama sacrificed the interim head of the IRS much for the same reason Shirley Sherrod went unemployed: the vast right wing noise machine demanded immediate oiling. And this craven President obliged. Quite frankly we don’t have the full story on what went down in Cincy — and how it went down. We are at the stage in the IRS story very similar to the opening of the Boston Marathon bombing. That is, where the nearest Muslim to the Boston marathon appears on the cover of Murdoch’s NY rag as primary suspect #1. Consider this counter story:

        From the Inspector General’s report on what happened, page 8: Figure 4 shows that approximately one-third of the applications identified for processing by the team of specialists included Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names, while the remainder did not. According to the Director, Rulings and Agreements, the fact that the team of specialists worked applications that did not involve the Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 groups demonstrated that the IRS was not politically biased in its identification of applications for processing by the team of specialists.

        Phony IRS “Scandal” — We’ve Been O’Keefe’d Again | Seeing the Forest

  4. Brett, so then you think that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party should be eligible for 501(c)(4) status? Both organizations are promoting the welfare of everybody, as they see it.

    1. I think that, according to current law, C.F. was simply wrong. No, a political party would not qualify, but an interest group whose efforts extended beyond benefiting their membership would.

      And Kelly’s defense of the IRS in this is utterly lame. Yes, it damned well WAS partisan, unless you can show they also made keywords of common liberal buzzwords, like “progressive”. Which I’m guessing we would have heard of by now, if they had.

      One of the nice things about the IRS scandal is that it’s exposing the difference between those who merely give the administration the benefit of any doubt, however small, and those who simply don’t care if it’s guilty. The President visits with the IRS employee union, the next day they start, purely by coincidence, targeting for abusive questions any organization with one of a number of conservative, but not liberal, buzzwords in their names. High figures in the administration were informed what was going on, but we’re supposed to believe kept the President in the dark about it.

      Anybody who claims to believe the defense at this point is just an eager hack, that’s all. And that goes double for the people charged with promoting that defense. You’ve got to not care if you retain any credibility to be pushing the administration line this far.

        1. So, your point is it’s ok for the Obama administration to commit any abuse that any previous administration, maybe 40-50 years ago, as ever committed? Maybe you think he should get away with having opposition media arrested, because Lincoln did that back during the Civil war?

          1. And, of course, the delay wasn’t even in the groups’ tax exempt status; they were free to claim that anytime they wanted. What was delayed was a presumptive ruling that they could legitimately claim tax exempt status. Such a ruling was never necessary either for the groups to operate or for them to file as tax exempt.

          2. Oh, come on, delay DOES damned well equal denial, just without finality.

            And, yes, they needed such a ruling if they weren’t going to take awful financial risks.

            Seriously, is this what you think constitutes a defense? “They didn’t say no, they just never said yes, while making absurd demands.”?

          3. If you are basically a political organization that is trying to receive a tax exempt classification the explicitly says that politics cannot be the primary focus of the group then I start out lacking much sympathy if it takes a while to get approval. Since it is not required that you get approval then I have even less. Again, there is no need even to apply for this ruling. If you are confident that your group meets the criteria for 501(c)(4) status then go ahead and file. If you are sufficiently in the gray area that it’s questionable, then complaining that it took a long time for the badly underfunded IRS to reach a decision is kind of silly, particularly if your basic mission includes making sure that the IRS is even more badly underfunded.

            There’s a very easy solution to this sort of problem. Actually, there are several, but one of them is to stop making ridiculous whines about the federal budget and actually ensure that the agencies have enough money to do their job in a timely fashion. Since the Tea Party groups are unlikely to support the obvious solution, my pity level drops even farther.

  5. It occurs to me that if you think that all federal taxation is illegitimate, you’re probably going to think you deserve tax-exempt status just for saying you’re tax-exempt.

    The Pgh paper on Sunday ran what I think is a NYT story about this that focused on the nuts and bolts of process. Basically as I read it, the division that handles these applications is a backwater within IRS that nobody wants to be in and is supervised out of DC rather than Cincinnati– is on a remote and backwater reporting line, even. It’s understaffed and was flooded with these applications. They undoubtedly have case-clearance targets they have to meet for annual reviews and nobody was really watching what was going on there. A very wrong thing to have done that looks at this point like a bureaucratic kludge.

    I know a former IRS auditor who told me that he never got to pick his cases but was handed them by a supervisor. It seems like things must have worked a little bit differently in this reviewing office, but in the absence of other information it’s plausible to me that this decision was made at the middle operations level. One reason I find that plausible is that I’ve worked in bureaucratic institutions. Another is that if I were a ruthless autocratic tyrannical kind of guy who wanted to strangle my opponents in their beds, I think I’d sic the auditors on them, kind of like Nixon did, rather than do something that has no effect on their ability to file as non-profits but gives them reason to get upset.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:
    Brett, so then you think that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party should be eligible for 501(c)(4) status? Both organizations are promoting the welfare of everybody, as they see it.

    MobiusKlein says:
    The Sierra Club was denied tax exempt status.

    Let’s see Fang asked a simple question and made a simple statement. Mobius also did a simple declarative.
    Now if you you read between the lines real real real real good….
    You should be able to pull this insane rabbit out of the hat:

    So, your point is it’s ok for the Obama administration to commit any abuse that any previous administration, maybe 40-50 years ago, as ever committed? Maybe you think he should get away with having opposition media arrested, because Lincoln did that back during the Civil war?

    Huh? You’ve either blown a gasket or your nick has been stolen by a right-wing chat bot.

    1. The Sierra club was, inappropriately, stripped of it’s tax exempt status back in the 60’s. Under another Democratic administration, IIRC. Is this supposed to excuse similar abuses under a modern Democratic administration?

      What happened to the Sierra club when I was a child is of no relevance to the current scandal. Why would anybody think it was?

      1. @brett bellmore

        you seem to be making the old mistake of attributing to malice what can just as easily be attributed to stupidity. i know very well how thin-skinned and argumentative you are but, whether you admitted it publicly or not, i think if you took a breath and really looked at the facts of the situation you would see that there’s no malevolence in this story.

        1. Stupidity and incompetence know no party, they have no political bias. Stupidity and incompetence would have chosen keywords which ranged across the ideological spectrum, not just conservative keywords. What we have here is stupidity, certainly, in thinking they could get away with this, but stupidity informed by ideological malevolence.

          Stupidity and incompetence are the first refuge of the malevolent.

          I will, of course, retract that position when it is demonstrated that the IRS keyword list included “People for”, and “Progresive”, or other similar liberal buzzwords.

          1. i can’t show that but i can show you on page 8 of the inspector general’s report that around two thirds of the applications given closer scrutiny were not groups with names involving the keywords at issue to republicans– http://www.treasury.gov/tigta/auditreports/2013reports/201310053fr.pdf

            and i can point to a bloomberg article showing that liberal or progressive groups received the same type of questionaires– http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-15/irs-sent-same-letter-to-democrats-that-fed-tea-party-row.html?alcmpid=politics.

            when there are real scandals in the form of the drone program and the continued operation of guantanamo, things that actually amount to moral outrages, i really don’t understand why the republican party (and you apparently) are so focused on a collection of laughable sideshows that don’t amount to a pile of rabbit droppings. i really don’t get it.

          2. Because, among other matters, the people who carried this out are moving on to running Obamacare? And nobody wants their medical care to depend on what some guy thinks of their politics.

            Because a supposedly neutral agency entrusted with scary amounts of personal information, and vast coercive powers, using them to harass your political enemies may not bother you, but it DOES bother your political enemies?

            Because this is the first of the Obama scandals which was so clear and indefensible that those parts of the media who aren’t utterly hopeless know they need to take it seriously, so it’s actually getting serious coverage?

          3. you usually do better than that. most of the time when you repond to me you at least sound like you read what you are responding to. this time not so much.

            there are real crimes and real scandals being perpetrated by this administration but you haven’t shown any interest in those. is it because killing civilians in countries we’re ar peace with is okay with you? is it because indefinite detention of people who have never been tried and some of whom have even been cleared for release is okay with you? what the hell?

            but this brew of weak tea caused because the underfunded irs had agents looking for ways to cut through the flood of these groups and sent questionaires to about 300 groups out of 1000s and 100 of those groups were conservative, this weak brew has sent you into the second worst set of paranoid ramblings i’ve seen from you since sandy hook/newtown. that is so odd.

  7. Here’s my question on this: were the keywords based on speculation or on data? When an office has an extra dozen or two applications for 501c4 status coming in every week, it probably takes at most a month to build up a fairly good idea of what a clearly questionable application looks like. If the vast majority of application that were questionable after careful examination turned out to have a small range of keywords in their names or mission statements (say, because they were mostly formed by people with access to the same set of online discussions) then IRS agents would clearly be making the best use of their time by focusing on those keywords.

    You can argue, of course, that when some shortcut produces a disparate impact on protected groups, it’s wrong no matter how solid its empirical basis. But there aren’t many people on the R side of the aisle who could make that argument with a straight face.

    1. If they were actually “questionable”, shouldn’t this have resulted in denials, rather than the process simply going on forever?

      It’s kind of like traffic stops: Your claim that disparate rates of stops is justified falls apart, if the rate of tickets fails to track the rate of stops.

      1. Perhaps the employees in question believed that denials should be based, you know, on evidence.

        1. But that delays shouldn’t? Paul argues that the use of politically charged criteria, (A list of conservative, but not liberal, keywords.) could have been evidence based. Fine. If it was genuinely evidence based, use of it should have been associated with actual negative findings, not merely perpetually escalating demands for inappropriate information. Evidence based policies should work. This didn’t, unless by “work” you mean, “kept a lot of new conservative groups out of action during the 2012 election cycle.”

          Which is a definition of “worked” some people use, of course. But not one government employees are supposed to be using.

          Face it, the best, the very best, interpretation of events is that lower level functionaries, convinced because of their own political biases (and public statements by the administration!) that the “Tea party” and “Patriot” groups were up to no good, subjected them to extra scrutiny, and when that scrutiny failed to turn anything up, simply turned up the scrutiny instead of approving them. Because they already “knew” they were up to no good, and if they didn’t find it, they weren’t looking hard enough.

          And that is the best interpretation of events. You can reasonably go a lot worse in your interpretation, given the facts that have been coming out.

          1. actually the best interpretation of events is that a group of low to mid level agents were overwhelmed by a flood of oganizations seeking tax-exempt status and the right to keep their donors secret and, since the irs is understaffed by successive republican budgets, some of the agents thought they might do keyword searches to look for organizations to sample. we know that about a third of these keyword led to tea-party groups but we don’t know what the other keywords were. we also know that some of the organizations that got the questionaire were left-leaning groups. in the end, it might have been better if the irs had automatically denied all of the applications and forced every group to prove their bona fides but the irs doesn’t have the staffing for that. givent he facts that have been coming out, that’s also a fairly reasonable interpretation.

      2. Uh, no. I meant exactly “questionable”. As in “There are some serious questions about this application as it stands, and we need more information to make a decision.” I find it a little odd that you seem to think that it would be better to issue a denial based on information staff considered insufficient, rather than to give an organization every possible chance to demonstrate that it was in compliance with the law.

        I remember that when I was being audited, I was grateful when the IRS agent said “what evidence do you have that this was a business expense? The following documents would be acceptable” rather than “deduction denied, see you in tax court if you disagree.”

        1. If you’ve got a valid basis for asking the questions, sometimes you’re going to be arriving at a negative conclusion. So, no, the absence of denials IS evidence that there was a problem. It’s just like if a cop is stopping people with a particular bumper sticker, and never ends up issuing a ticket, you know he’s engaged in harassment. If he weren’t, tickets would occasionally have been justified!

          And I’ll believe there was nothing partisan about it when we see a list of keywords, and they include “progressive” or “people”, or other lefty buzzwords. I have to think that, if they could that easily prove there wasn’t anything partisan about it, they would have.

          All you’re doing is demonstrating your absolute determination to see no evil.

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